Until last Saturday (15 Dec 2018), I hadn’t heard of the BunsenLabs Linux distribution. Immediately, I like the name as makes me think of one of my favorite Muppets. I was immediately intrigued by this distribution for the system requirements. RAM minimum is 256 MiB with 1 GiB recommended. Storage requirement is only 10 GiB. It is available in both 32-bit and 64-bit architectures. (see here)
BunsenLabs is based on Debian Stretch and has a fantastic post-install custom configuration script that made quick work of setting up the desktop.
This is a biased review from an openSUSE Tumbleweed user running the KDE Plasma Desktop Environment. I am very happy with openSUSE and Plasma and this is not a review to consider switching my primary machines but rather just see what else is out there and have fun playing in unfamiliar territories.
BusnenLabs has a fine installer that reminds me of my early days on Linux. Not sure if it is the font or the color scheme or just everything together, the installer brought a smile to my face. It’s very easy to understand what is going on and you do not have to be an expert to set it up. I do think that it could be a little overwhelming to the technically adverse but with just basic system knowledge, this is a breeze to install.
I was initially very happy to see that I could skip the Live version and go right into the Installation. Not having that option is really quite annoying.
The first three pages is all all very easy questions, what language, what country and what kind of keyboard. Afterward it loads more installer components.
It should be noted, you must be connected to the internet for the installer to succeed. More on that later.
The next two screen ask you to enter the machine name and domain. It probably could have been combined onto one page but this isn’t a bad design choice. It’s perfectly clear and allows for the user to not be overwhelmed.
Next you will enter your username and password (some screenshots omitted) then your timezone.
To this point, all the questions have been non-technical, in nature, very simple and straight forward. Now the installer gets a bit more involved: The partitioning of the disks.
This is the only area of the installer that I think could get complicated for the user. It took a bit for me to understand as it felt a little cumbersome but ultimately, it does its job very well. I selected the guided partitioning and perhaps there is an even easier way.
Next, select the drive (in the case of this VM, there was only one option) then how you want the layout of the drive to be. I think doing anything other than a separate /home partition on an installation a bit silly.
If you are forced to “nuke and pave” your installation of Linux with either a new distribution or a new version, not having a separate partition means you are going to go through the process of copying your data back onto the computer.
The installer gives a real nice readout of how the drive is going to be set up and gives you a chance to change your mind.
After setting the location of the Grub Boot loader, your installation is complete.
BunsenLabs boots pretty quick, which is actually pretty typical of Linux distributions today. The login screen pops up pretty quick with a pleasantly offset login dialog box.
The Desktop Environment starts up quick, mostly because there is not much there and you are greeted with this terminal Welcome Screen. This is the first welcome screen I have seen with a terminal which gives this distribution a whole lot of bonus points.
This 15 page post-install script makes installing all the extras and backports, Java and Flashplayer if you wish super easy. Once done, I was able to use YouTube and other Flashplayer sites like homestarrunner.com.
I don’t know that I am such a fan of the OpenBox interface. It does its job. The theme is okay but it doesn’t really excite me. It appears to be incredibly stable, despite this environment feeling like it is a patchwork of components.
The only things I am not real crazy about are the way you access the application menu. The only option I see is the Super Key (Meta Key, Windows Key, etc). The menu style is actually what I like, for the most part. Applications arranged in categories based on what it is, not just a mess of applications akin to what you see on Android and iOS, so huge points there. This menu is better than most “modern” menus.
Accessing the application menu is fine for computers with keyboards but those that are touch screen, probably not a good setup. However, I do not think that this Linux distribution is targeting that kind of hardware. Which got me thinking.
Second and Third Installation
I have some 10 to 15 year old Dell Optiplex desktops that I wanted to see how well BunsenLabs Linux would work. I started with this Dell Optiplex 745, Core 2 Duo machine. It has 4 GiB of RAM and an 80 GiB hard drive. The installation of BunsenLabs was fantastic. One note of caution, should you install BunsenLabs, unless I missed something, it will require a working network connection. I had to start the installation over to provide network connection this time. It completed without issue. Following the post-installation, of BunsenLabs, I was blown away by how well the system ran. I can’t stress to you enough how fast it was. I opened up Firefox and hopped into YouTube and it played movies without any problems at all. It is quite smooth at 720p in full screen mode (I didn’t have a full HD screen). I tried a few other things, kept a terminal open to run free -h to see how memory usage was and I had a lot of wiggle room.
So then I thought… could BunsenLabs, with a modern Linux Kernal run well on a Pentium 4 HT machine? I pulled out of my stash a Dell Optiplex GX620, 2.5 GiB of RAM, and an AMD X600 series GPU. The installation and post-installation when just as smooth. I ran the same kind of test, wondering, can I do YouTube on this. The answer is a resounding YES, albeit at 480p to not get the annoying skipping. To me, this was impressive. A machine released in 2005 is still capable of being a decently functional machine. Certainly not great but not exactly obsolete.
I was very impressed with what BunsenLabs could do with this substantially dated hardware. It makes me think about the possibilities.
What I Like
I like so much about BunsenLabs. It is a fine distribution of Linux that harnesses the vast array of software from the Debian project and makes installation friendly for pretty much any user. Sure, the are a few things that are not my favorite but certainly not impossible to navigate. Giving the option to install from the Grub menu was a huge win for me.
BunsenLabs is fast and efficient. It appears to be tailor made for aging hardware and really makes what could be thought of as junk to being a really pretty terrific piece of equipment. Immediately, I can think of many uses for these old computers just because of what BunsenLabs provides so easily.
What I Don’t Like
Sigh… I am just not a fan of the OpenBox + XFCE that BunsenLabs uses. Don’t get me wrong, it is not bad but I just couldn’t use it full time. I think it would work great for specific use cases, appliance or kiosk type work but for me and my desired workflow, it just doesn’t meet the mark. It is not bad and probably great for a great number of people but misses a few features that I just don’t want to do without.
BunsenLabs Linux is a fantastic project that really needs a little more love from the community. It is not given the credit it deserves. I am thinking of many applications for BunsenLabs now. It is based on Debian, which isn’t my favorite base but because it is Debian, I have access to pretty much any software that I want. I don’t have many requirements, especially for these older machines but his opens up a whole world of capabilities for this hardware that is well past end of life. More to follow on what I do with these derelict machines on another date.